Empire Falls by Richard Russo

  Janine was able to identify only three primal urges: to eat, to fuck, and to kill your pain-in-the-ass mother. She wasn’t sure which of these was the most powerful, but she knew the last was the most dangerous because there was so little to counterbalance it. “You know what, Beatrice?” Janine said. She never used her mother’s full name except to suggest her proximity to actual matricide. “You’re just jealous.” Of her weight loss and relative youth and sexual activity, it went without saying.

  Standing up, Janine carried the bowl of beer nuts down the bar and handed them to the only other customers, two morose-looking unemployed millworkers who were nursing cheap draft beers and patiently awaiting happy hour. On the way back she snagged another short stack of cocktail napkins.

  “I am,” her mother agreed. “I really do wish I could go through life blind and selfish. Did it ever occur to you that I’m sixty years old? That maybe I could use a hand changing these damn kegs?”

  Janine Louise Comeau, wrote Janine Louise Roby on the back of the first new napkin. Beneath her signature, the same thing, twice more. “Don’t tell me after all these years you finally decided you don’t like mule work,” she said.

  “I like it fine,” Bea said, which was true. Until recently she used to pick up the damn kegs. Now she rocked them gently on and off the hand truck she kept out back, wheeling the full kegs in and the empties back out. “Nolan Ryan still likes to throw fastballs, too.”

  Having tended bar for forty years, Bea had watched several thousand ball games she had no interest in, only to discover at this late date that she’d picked up so damn much knowledge about baseball that she halfway enjoyed it. And she’d come to believe life was like that: you could enjoy almost anything if you gave it enough time. “Including a man,” Bea always concluded. Meaning Miles, Janine understood. Her mother had little patience on the subject of her marriage. “If I could learn to love your father,” Bea never tired of reminding her daughter, “you could learn to love a man as good-hearted as Miles.” Which was a damn lie, Janine knew. Bea had loved her father from the start and continued loving him until the day he died. The fact that her father was no damn good was beside the point.

  “You think Nolan Ryan likes pitching ibuprofen after pitching fastballs?” Bea wanted to know.

  Janine Louise Comeau, Janine wrote above another leprechaun. According to her watch, a minute and a half had passed. “I don’t have any idea, Mother. I don’t even know who Nolan Ryan is.”

  “What I’m saying is, I could use a hand sometimes,” Bea told her. “If it’s an aerobic workout you’re after, I can help you out.”

  Janine knew where this was heading, of course. What Bea was hinting at was getting her to work at the tavern, which wasn’t going to happen. Lately her mother had been thinking about reopening the kitchen for lunch. Back when Janine’s father was alive, Callahan’s had served sandwiches and done a decent lunch trade. Janine could make it work, too. She knew food from all those years wasted on the Empire Grill—but it was working around food all the time that had put an extra fifty pounds on her. Walt had come along and talked her into working at the club just in time. Another year or two and she would’ve looked just like her mother, who was built like a thumb, except not so flexible in the middle. The thing Janine couldn’t figure out was why her mother would want her at the bar. They’d just fight like cats the whole time, unable to agree on anything.

  “Give it up, Beatrice,” Janine advised. According to her watch, only twenty-two minutes to go. “I got a job at one of the few successful businesses in Dexter County. I’ve lost fifty pounds and I feel good about myself for the first time in my whole damn life. You aren’t going to bring me down, so don’t even try, okay?”

  The two mopers at the other end of the bar had stopped pretending they weren’t eavesdropping, so Bea switched on the TV to a talk show, loud enough that she and her daughter could continue their conversation in private. The men were clearly disappointed. “If we got to listen to a fat woman talk, can’t she at least be the white one?” one of them complained.

  Reluctantly, Bea did as requested, though in her opinion these particular men would’ve benefited more from watching Oprah than Rosie. “Oprah’s smarter than any five white men you can name, Otis.”

  “She ain’t smart enough to be white, though, is she?” he countered, eliciting a bitter chuckle from his companion.

  The argument Bea wanted was with her daughter, not these two reprobates, but she couldn’t let Otis have the last word, either. She considered herself one of the few unprejudiced people in Empire Falls by virtue of the fact that she took a dim view of practically everyone, regardless of their race or gender. “Unlike some people,” she said, “Oprah’s content in her own skin.”

  “I’m plenty content in my own skin too,” Otis said, not understanding that her remark was directed at her daughter.

  “Now that’s a tragedy,” Bea replied, then turned away to face Janine. “And I’m not trying to bring you down, little girl. You’re always accusing people of that, as if everybody in the world’s only got one thing on their mind. You. It’s a mother’s duty to point out when her child is acting dumber than usual, and that’s all I’m doing.”

  Janine tore the napkin with a vicious stroke of the “u” in Comeau. “Can we just drop the whole thing, Ma?” she suggested, wadding up the ruined napkin. “There’s no point in us discussing what isn’t any of your damn business to start with. If you can’t understand why I might want something better than going through life fat and miserable, then that’s too damn bad. Maybe someday I’ll give up—like you—but not today, all right? People can change, and I’m changing.”

  “You aren’t changing, Janine,” her mother said. “You’re just losing weight. There’s a difference. If you woke up one morning thinking of somebody but yourself, that would be a change. If you thought for two seconds about the effect of all your foolishness on your daughter, that’d be another.”

  “Like I said, Ma,” Janine replied, grabbing the last of the napkins, “you’re just jealous, so let’s drop it before one of us says something they’ll regret, okay?”

  “I’m not even close to saying anything I’ll regret,” Bea assured her. “What I’ll regret is holding my tongue.”

  “How would you know? You’ve never even tried.”

  Down the bar, Otis snorted at that one. Which meant that the television’s volume wasn’t up high enough. Which Bea remedied.

  “What I’m trying to tell you,” she continued, “is that all you’re doing is shoveling shit against the tide. A person is what she is.”

  Janine was tempted to tell her mother about all the orgasms she was having now, how Walt had found the spot whose existence Miles had never even suspected, how nice it felt to be desired for once. Except what was the point of trying to explain this to a woman who wouldn’t even know orgasms existed if Oprah didn’t tell her? “I don’t need you to tell me who I am, Beatrice. For the first time in my life I have a pretty good idea.”

  “You do?” Her mother was grinning now in that superior way of hers.

  “You’re damn right I do,” Janine said, autographing the last of the napkins. After all, there was no point in getting angry. The argument had done exactly what she’d hoped, distracting her from her hunger. According to the clock over the register, it was now ten till four, time to head back to the club.

  “Well, I don’t believe you,” her mother said. “And what’s more, I can prove you’re full of it.”

  Sliding off her stool, Janine shouldered her tote bag and pushed her glass, now empty except for the soggy lime wedge in the bottom, toward her mother. “Yeah, well, I’m not interested in your proof, Beatrice. I’m going to work.”

  “Who’s going to work?” Bea said, covering the napkin with her rough hand. “The woman whose name is on this napkin?”

  “That’s right, Ma,” Janine said, heading for the door. It was her mother’s chuckle that stopped her.

  “Read it
and weep, little girl,” Bea said, holding up the napkin between her thumb and forefinger for her daughter’s inspection.

  Suddenly Janine didn’t want to look, aware from her mother’s triumphant expression that somehow she’d managed to betray herself. And there in plain sight was the evidence, scrawled in triplicate in her own hand.

  Janine Louise Roby.

  Janine Louise Roby.

  Janine Louise Roby.


  “THERE have been times,” Father Mark admitted, “when I feared that God would turn out to be like my maternal grandmother.”

  Late in the afternoon, he and Miles were sitting in the rectory’s breakfast nook, drinking coffee, Miles having just confessed a petulant doubt about God’s wisdom. Earlier that afternoon, at his daughter’s behest, he’d hired a new busboy. They needed one, so that part was fine, and one thing Mrs. Whiting was good about was giving him free rein with regard to personnel, for which he was particularly grateful in this instance, because he couldn’t imagine how to explain today’s hiring to his employer. In fact, he wasn’t even sure how he was going to explain it to David and Charlene, who’d both looked at him as if he’d lost his mind when he introduced John Voss. What?—they clearly wanted to know, when the boy seemed equally incapable of speech and meeting any adult eye—you hired a mute? Miles could tell from his brother’s body language that he considered this merely the tip of the iceberg when it came to Miles’s bizarre behavior since returning from Martha’s Vineyard. David hadn’t raised the issue of the liquor license after Miles returned from his meeting with Mrs. Whiting, but Miles knew the subject wasn’t dead. Nor was the necessity of hiring a replacement for Buster, whom Miles could find neither hide nor hair of. While they did need another busboy, hiring a backup fry cook was far more urgent if Miles didn’t intend to continue opening the restaurant himself every day of the week, which he’d done now for nearly a month. If he got sick, that was that, since David only worked evenings and seldom rose before noon. So at the sight of John Voss, David shook his head as if Miles had sent in a flanker to replace an injured interior lineman.

  “Ours was a large family,” Father Mark was explaining, “and every Christmas my grandmother gave gifts of cash in varying amounts, claiming she was rewarding her grandchildren according to how much they loved her. She swore she could look right into our hearts and know. One child would get a crisp fifty-dollar bill, the next a crumpled single. No two gifts were ever the same amount.”

  Miles nodded. “Well, maybe there’s a hell.”

  Father Mark smiled. “It’s pretty to think so. Of course, none of this had anything to do with the grandchildren at all. She was punishing and rewarding her own grown children according to her own mean-spirited sense of justice. Those who stopped by to see her during the week, who did her bidding and fawned over her, were rewarded. Those who didn’t got coal in their stockings. My Aunt Jane was among the favored until her husband took a job in Illinois. My grandmother warned her not to move, and when they did anyway, she wrote Jane out of the will.”

  Miles nodded. How did the world come to be run by power-mad old women? he wondered.

  “Driving all the way back to New Jersey for the Christmas holidays didn’t win Janey any points, either. With my grandmother, when you were out, you were Old Testament out, buried like Moses in a shallow grave. But it was her kids who took the worst of it. I can still see my cousin Phyllis’s face when she opened her Christmas card and saw that crumpled dollar bill. I don’t think she cared about the money, but she believed what my grandmother had said about being able to look into her heart. How she sobbed, poor child.”

  Naturally, Miles was curious. “How did you do that year?”

  “Me?” Father Mark smiled. “Oh, I got that crisp new fifty. You could still smell the ink on it.”

  “Did you share it with your less fortunate cousins?”

  “No, as you might expect, sharing was strictly forbidden. I did tell my cousins the truth, though.”

  “Which was?”

  “That I hated my grandmother with a fierce passion, which proved that she was lying about being able to look in our hearts. I told little Phyllis that if Grandma’d ever seen into mine the old bat would’ve seen someone just waiting for her to die.” When Miles didn’t say anything right away, Father Mark became sheepish. “In telling that story, it occurs to me that I’ve never forgiven her.”

  “I’m not sure it’d work as a homily without some retooling,” Miles conceded, though he himself had instigated the story by trying to explain why he’d hired the new busboy. If what Tick had told him was true, the boy’s parents had abandoned him, one after the other, and he was now the butt of practical jokes at the hands of the school’s lunchroom bullies. Which had caused Miles to question God’s wisdom, if He arranged things so that children so often were given burdens far too heavy for them to bear.

  As his “date” with Cindy Whiting approached, Miles had been thinking a lot about life’s inequities and his mother’s tendency to take them to heart and to act upon her belief that we were all put on earth to make things a little more fair. It was Tick who’d made the request to hire that hopeless, bedraggled boy, but it was his mother, no doubt, who’d whispered in his ear when his instincts had argued against doing so.

  “It’s a good story with a bad lesson,” Father Mark admitted. “Maybe I’ll work on it. I do get some of my better homilies from our afternoon chats. I always feel guilty after we’ve talked, like maybe I should pay you back with a recipe for the restaurant. Actually, I don’t really think God’s anything like my grandmother, but I can’t help wondering if the situation isn’t instructive, seen from the child’s point of view. I mean, what if we assume our relationship to God to be one thing, and it’s really something else? What if there’s something central to the equation that we’re leaving out? Maybe, like children, we assume ourselves to be of central importance, and we’re not. Maybe the inequities that consume us here on earth aren’t really the issue.”

  “So feeding the hungry isn’t important?”

  “Not exactly. Maybe it’s important, but not quite in the way we think. Maybe, to God, it’s our way of expressing the ‘something else’ that passeth beyond all understanding. Something we aren’t meant to understand.”

  “Nonsense.” Miles grinned. “I understand your grandmother perfectly, and so do you. You’re trying to make a mystery out of selfishness.”

  Father Mark chuckled. “Yeah, I guess. She was a mean, self-centered old harridan. Still, we’re attracted to a good mystery. Explanation, no matter how complete, isn’t really that satisfying. Take those two, for instance.” He pointed out the window at Max and Father Tom, who were seated in the gathering dusk beneath a big weeping willow. To Miles they looked like a pair of old hobos who couldn’t decide whether to get up and catch the night freight south or let it go and hop a train in the morning. With each gusting breeze the thin brown willow leaves swirled down upon them, some settling in their hair. Neither man seemed to notice. “Part of me wants to know what in the world they find to talk about, yet I doubt I’d feel much wiser for knowing.”

  In the week since Max had started helping Miles with the church, he’d struck up a surprising friendship with the old priest. At first Miles had thought that Father Tom, slipping ever deeper into his dementia, didn’t recognize Max as someone he’d long known and despised utterly, but this was apparently not the case. When questioned, he recalled quite well that he’d always held Max Roby in the lowest possible esteem as a blasphemer, a shiftless charmer, a drinker and general ne’er-do-well. What he seemed less clear about was why he’d objected to these qualities. While neither Miles nor Father Mark wanted to deny the codgers their friendship, both agreed they bore watching.

  And on Miles’s advice, Max was still not allowed in the Rectum, as the old man was notoriously light-fingered; if Father Mark didn’t want the church’s valuables turning up for sale at Empire Music and Pawn, Max had best be kept out

  “He’d steal from God?” Father Mark had wondered, the question tinged with the priest’s usual irony.

  “He’s pretty fearless where God is concerned,” Miles answered. “I can’t tell whether he’s a genuine atheist or simply believes in a God who’s lost His grasp of the details.”

  “A God you could bullshit?”

  “Exactly,” Miles agreed, shrugging. Bullshitting God would be Max’s plan in a nutshell. Miles could even guess his father’s opening gambit. He’d point out to God that if He expected better results, He ought to have given Max better character to work with, instead of sending him into battle so poorly equipped.

  However, as much as Miles hated to admit it, the painting was going a lot faster. Probably it had something to do with the fact that they got to work right away, instead of Miles wasting an hour with Father Mark over coffee. And it was also true that even at “sempty” Max could still climb like a monkey. He also could paint from either the ladder or the platform, and being twenty feet off the ground didn’t rattle him at all, whereas Miles was distrustful of his footing and unwilling to lean. Max’s fearlessness worried him at first, but the truth was that the old man never fell unless he was drunk, so Miles just checked his breath before letting him set foot on a ladder. As a result, the west face of St. Cat’s was nearly finished, thanks to a stretch of bright, sunny late-September days. If he and Max were smart, they’d let it go at that, then pick up the work again in the spring, assuming that St. Cat’s hadn’t turned into an art gallery or a music hall by then.

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